Veteran character actor Richard Erdman has come full circle.
Discovered seven decades ago starring in a frivolous school play, “Ever Since Eve,” at Hollywood High, Erdman was personally signed to a contract at Warner Bros. by Michael Curtiz, the Oscar-winning director of “Casablanca.”
And 70 years later, Erdman’s back in school — so to speak. He plays the recurring role of the irascible college student Leonard on NBC’s acclaimed sitcom “Community,” which returns for its fourth season on Thursday evening.
Now 87, he’s just as exhilarated with acting as he was as a wide-eyed kid on the Warner Bros. lot.
“It’s just a lot of fun to do,” he said during a lively lunch recently at Musso & Frank. “I think those kids [on the series] are fun.”
“He’s one of those people you love to work with,” said “Community” executive producer/director Tristram Shapeero. “I love the way we use him. He’s a great foil.”
“Community” revolves around misfit members of a study group at Greendale Community College. Leonard was introduced in the first season as a member of the Hipsters — a group of elderly college students who got their nickname because they had their hips replaced.
Leonard is no shrinking violent. His rebellious nature caused him to be banned from Denny’s. He’s gone skinny dipping and vandalized walls with graffiti. Leonard even changed his last name from Briggs to Rodriguez to court the Latino vote when he ran for student body president.
Leonard is a throwback to the roles Erdman played when he was still a teenager at Warner Bros. “He was in a great deal of films very quickly,” said his good friend, film noir historian Alan K. Rode. “He carved a niche for himself as a wiseacre sidekick for different people.”
Born in Oklahoma, Erdman grew up in Colorado Springs, Colo., where his single mom was a cook. A drama teacher at school was so impressed with Erdman’s ability that he told his mother to take him to Hollywood.
So he enrolled in Hollywood High School and his mother got a job as a cook at the Ivar House restaurant. Shortly after being signed to Warner Bros., Erdman made his screen debut in an uncredited role as a Western Union boy delivering a telegram to Claude Rains in 1944’s “Mr. Skeffington.” He earned his first screen credit that year in Curtiz’s “Janie.”
As a young contract player, the studio sent him out on personal appearances and gave him lessons in singing, dancing, speech and acting. He also did some 50 shows at the famed Hollywood Canteen, the World War II club started by Bette Davis and John Garfield, for the servicemen. “We did comedy sketches,” said Erdman. “It was an education.”
After making 27 films at Warners in less than three years, he left the studio — “I wasn’t getting the parts I should have been getting” — and found greener pastures under contract at Paramount.
Erdman is best remembered for two films — Robert Parrish’s crackling 1951 film noir, “Cry Danger,” with Dick Powell and Rhonda Fleming, and as barracks chief Hoffy in Billy Wilder’s 1953 World War II classic “Stalag 17,” for which William Holden won an Academy Award.
Wilder and Parrish were his favorite directors. “They had senses of humor and they listened to people and watched,” said Erdman. “They directed instead of acted. Many directors are very busy being important. But those two — no. Billy was quite funny.”
Erdman’s appeared in countless TV series — he played McNulty in the “A Kind of Stopwatch” episode of “The Twilight Zone” — and ran the renowned Stage Society theater group in Los Angeles for seven years. “A great many people got discovered there, like Anne Bancroft,” said Erdman.
His engaging personality and colorful stories of Hollywood have endeared him to his “Community” co-workers.
“I adore him,” said Gillian Jacobs, who plays Britta Perry. “He’s such a sweet man and has such patience and good humor.”
“You feel like you’re so connected with history,” said Shapeero.
Are you an aficionado of iconic Hollywood? Like our Classic Hollywood Facebook page to get more Times coverage.